Spillman, William Jasper 1863-1931

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Agricultural scientist and economist.

From the description of Papers, 1891-1940. (Washington State University). WorldCat record id: 29852724

William Jasper Spillman was born October 23, 1863 in Lawrence County, Missouri, the eleventh child of Nathan Cosby Spilman (b. 1823) and Emily Paralee Pruit (b. 1830). His childhood was spent on a Missouri farm among a large family burdened by the accidental death of his father in 1871.

In 1881 young Willie Spilman (he changed the spelling while in college) enrolled at the University of Missouri. He subsequently received his B.S. in 1886 and, following three years as teacher at Missouri State Normal School, Cape Giradeau, where he married Miss Mattie Ramsay (1865-1935) in 1889, received his M.S. in 1890 in absentia. At this time Spillman was teaching botany and physics at Vincennes University where he was fortunate in making the acquaintance of Dr. Enoch A. Bryan who later, as President of Washington Agricultural College, invited Spillman to join the faculty in Pullman.

In 1889 the Spillmans moved to Oregon where he was appointed teacher of science at the Oregon State Normal School at Monmouth. One of the Spillman sisters and her husband were living in near-by McMinnville. Another older sister was living at The Dalles with her family. It was in Monmouth that Ramsay Spillman was born September 21, 1891. The Spillmans remained in Monmouth until 1894 the year that E.A. Bryan became the third president of the newly opened Washington Agricultural College (later Washington State University).

Bryan invited his former colleague to Pullman to teach agriculture. His preparation for this new assignment consisted of his farm childhood, his scientific training and several weeks of observation at the University of Wisconsin.

It was at Pullman that Spillman made a momentous scientific discovery which, if he had not been preceeded by an obscure Austrian monk forty-five years earlier, would have made his name known to the world. Involved in experiments to hybridize wheat adapted to the growing conditions of the Palouse country Spillman independently rediscovered Mendel's Law of Heredity. He has been credited with a major role in the acceptance of Mendel's Law by scientists and agriculturalists.

During his brief tenure at Washington State College Spillman began to concentrate on the economics and methodology of practical agriculture for the farmer. He became known as the man with the knowledge to assist the farmer, not just a laboratory theorist. In 1902 he accepted a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture following the reception of his paper on his wheat-breeding experiments presented at the meeting of the Association of American Agricultural Colleges and Experiment Stations in Washington, D.C. in November, 1901. Here he, and a select crew which followed him from Pullman (as an earlier group had followed him from Monmouth), laid the groundwork for the scientific management of farms. Although hired as an agrostologist (or expert on grasses) Spillman's overwhelming interest in farm management coupled with the nearly free hand given to him by the Department produced several bulletins, speeches and other communications directed to the farmer's needs. In 1905 the Office of Farm Management was organized with Spillman as the head, a position he retained until 1918 when a disagreement with the Secretary of Agriculture elicited his resignation. Subsequently he obtained a position as editor of the influential Farm Journal. This provided a forum for his many and diverse approaches to agriculture. He retained this position until the farm slump and a subsequent loss of advertising revenue in 1921 forced the Journal to cut back its staff.

Almost immediately Spillman was asked to rejoin the Department of Agriculture and was again given a free hand. Among his many other activities Spillman was asked to participate in the efforts of the 1927-1928 Survey of Indian Affairs. Spillman's role required visiting reservations across the country and reporting on their economic use and potential, particularly in relation to agriculture. The final report of the Survey was published as The Problem of Indian Administration (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1928). He also served as part-time professor of commercial geography at the Foreign Service School of Georgetown University from 1922 until 1931. Spillman remained with the U.S.D.A. until his death July 11, 1931 after an unsuccessful operation.

As teacher and an educator, Spillman drew devoted crowds of students to his classes. As an agriculturalist he was in the front rank of those applying scientific methodology to the problems of agriculture. He rediscovered Mendel's Law while engaged in wheat hybridization experiments. He formulated theories for the application of commercial fertilizer on farms. He founded, practically single-handedly, the study of agricultural economics or farm management. To the farmers he was not the government's expert, but a practical man who knew what he was talking about and, as well, knew when to listen. They said: "Don't send me no experts; send Spillman."

From the guide to the William Jasper Spillman Papers, 1891-1940, (Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Austin W. Curtis Papers, 1896-1971 Bentley Historical Library
creatorOf Spillman, William Jasper, 1863-1931. Papers, 1891-1940. Washington State University, Holland and Terrell Libraries
referencedIn William Jasper Spillman, 1863-1931 : typescript, n.d. Washington State University, Holland and Terrell Libraries
creatorOf William Jasper Spillman Papers, 1891-1940 Washington State University Libraries Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC)
creatorOf Purdin, Walter James, b. 1879. Papers, 1900-1962. Washington State University, Holland and Terrell Libraries
creatorOf Curtis, Austin W., 1911-. Austin W. Curtis papers, 1896-1971. Bentley Historical Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Curtis, Austin W., 1911- person
associatedWith Purdin, Walter James, b. 1879. person
associatedWith Rice, James Henry, 1868-1935. person
associatedWith Spillman, Ramsay, b. 1891. person
associatedWith United States. Office of Farm Management. corporateBody
associatedWith Washington State University. College of Agriculture. corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
Indians of North America
Native Americans
Washington (State)


Birth 1863

Death 1931


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